Second-degree burns, or partial thickness burns, are more severe than first-degree burns. They affect the outer layer of skin, called the epidermis, and part of the second layer of skin, called the dermis.

Second-degree burns can be very painful and often take several weeks to heal. Burns that affect large areas of skin can cause serious complications and may be prone to infection.

In this article, learn more about second-degree burns, including the symptoms and when to see a doctor.

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Second-degree burns affect multiple layers of skin.

Doctors categorize burns according to the amount of damage they cause to the skin and surrounding tissue.

  • First-degree burns are generally minor and affect only the outer layer of skin. They are the most common type of burn. Most sunburns fall into this category. Learn more about first-degree burns here.
  • Second-degree burns are more serious burns that affect the outer layer of skin and the next layer, the dermis. They take longer to heal and are more serious.
  • Third-degree burns are the most serious types of burn. They affect both layers of skin and may also affect other tissue, such as sweat glands. Third-degree burns usually need a skin graft.

Second-degree burns can be relatively minor, such as when a burn from a stove or iron burns deeper into the skin. They can also be very serious and even life-threatening.

Second-degree burns are more dangerous when:

  • They affect large areas of the body.
  • They affect the joints, face, or hands.
  • They affect the genitals or buttocks.
  • They occur in someone with a weakened immune system, such as someone who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Second-degree burns can cause serious infections, especially if they cover large areas of the body or if a person does not receive the right treatment.

Physical sources of heat, such as the sun and stoves, can cause second-degree burns. Certain chemicals, including bleach and other cleaning products, can also cause burns.

Some common causes of second-degree burns include:

  • severe sunburn, such as when a person with very fair skin sits in the sun for an extended period
  • accidents with ovens and stoves
  • exposure to fire
  • contact with boiling water

Accidental injuries are a common reason for second-degree burns. For example, a child might place their hand on a hot burner.

Intentional abuse, such as during acid attacks, can also cause second-degree burns.

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A second-degree burn that covers a large part of the body will require medical attention.

Any serious burn, especially on exposed areas of the skin or on large sections of the body, warrants a trip to the doctor.

Some common symptoms of second-degree burns include:

  • a wet-looking or seeping wound
  • blisters
  • a burn with an irregular pattern
  • intense pain or skin sensitivity
  • skin that looks white, very deep red, or very dark brown

A person who develops a fever or feels ill after sustaining a burn may have an infection.

A doctor or other healthcare professional can diagnose the severity of a burn by looking at it. They will ask questions about what caused the burn, as well as whether the person has any other medical conditions.

In some cases, a doctor will also estimate the percentage of the body the burn covers, as this can help with assessing the risk of infection and serious complications.

People who think they have sustained second-degree burns should seek medical care. Receiving the right first aid can prevent serious complications.

While a person is waiting to be examined, performing the following steps may help:

  • Remove any clothing, pieces of jewelry, or other objects that cover the burn. They may be hot, continuing to burn the skin and intensifying the severity of the burn. If it is not possible to remove clothing without damaging the skin, leave it on.
  • Cool the burn by running it under cool, but not cold, water. Do not apply ice to the burn.
  • Drink plenty of water or electrolyte fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Cover the burn with gauze or a loose dressing. Do not wrap the cover tightly, as this can cut off circulation.
  • Do not break open blisters.
  • Avoid applying butter or other home remedies, especially immediately after sustaining the burn.

Medical treatment depends on the severity and location of the burn. A doctor may clean the burn or apply an antibiotic cream.

If the burn is very severe or covers much of the body, a person may need to stay in the hospital for monitoring.

A doctor may also prescribe antibiotics, especially if a person has an infection or is at high risk of developing one. Severe infections might require treatment with intravenous antibiotics.

Very serious second-degree burns may need a skin graft. During a skin graft, a surgeon will transplant skin from one area of the body to another to replace the damaged skin.

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Applying moisturizer to a closed burn wound can help promote healing and prevent scarring.

Recovering from second-degree burns can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. If a person develops complications, recovery might take longer.

Home management varies depending on the severity of the burn and the overall health of the person who sustained it. It is vital to ask for clear burn management guidelines from the doctor who treated it.

To speed up recovery and help reduce pain, a person can try the following strategies:

  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Keep the burn clean and covered.
  • Regularly moisturize the burn once the wound closes and stops draining. This can speed healing and may reduce or prevent scarring.
  • Apply an OTC antibiotic ointment to the wound to keep it clean and prevent infection.
  • Avoid rubbing, scratching, or picking at the burn, as this can reopen the wound, increasing the risk of infection.

If a person develops a fever, notices red streaks around the burn, or believes that their symptoms have suddenly worsened, they may have an infection. In this case, they should see a doctor.

Many common accidents can cause second-degree burns, including spilling something hot on the skin or touching a hot appliance.

Receiving prompt treatment can help prevent scarring, infections, and other serious complications, so it is best to see a doctor as soon as possible. If the burn is large or intensely painful, go to the emergency room.